Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

Darcy and Winters

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of…

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Reading History: “The Habsburgs: To Rule the World” (by Martyn Rady)

I’ve always found myself fascinated with the Habsburgs. As one of the most powerful and prominent (as well as long-lived) dynasties in Europe, their dynastic fortunes played an outsize role in the fortunes of Europe as a whole and, as the centuries progressed, they came to play an increasingly important role in both the stability and the eventual disintegration of Central and Eastern Europe. So, when I saw that there Martyn Rady’s new book on the dynasty, I leapt at the chance to read it.

Rady provides a detailed account of Habsburg fortunes, from the founding of the dynasty until its monarchical demise in the aftermath of the First World War. While certainly the titanic figures feature largely in his narrative–figures such as Charles V (who sparred with Martin Luther), Maria Theresa, and Franz Joseph–he also pays attention to the lesser-known figures, such as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. We see the ebb and flow of their power as they have to contend with the fundamentally unstable nature of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the numerous conflicts, both religious and political, that roiled Europe, ranging from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of nationalism.

While the book is, naturally, primarily about the political fortunes of the dynasty–particularly its Austrian branch–it also delves into the complicated relationship between the Spanish branch of the family and their eastern cousins, as well as various other European powers. The French often figure largely, particularly Louis XIV and Napoleon, the latter of whom would inflict one of the most crushing defeats the dynasty would endure. The Habsburgs also frequently found themselves in conflict with their own nobles, as well as the Ottoman Empire. Through it all, however, they aspired to be the guarantors of stability and peace–and as purveyors of the legacy of the Roman Empire–and, if they didn’t always succeed in those endeavors, Rady makes the case that they should be respected for at least attempting to do so.

In addition to being rulers of vast domains, the Habsburgs were also voracious collectors of knowledge and devout defenders of the Catholic faith, and Rady does an excellent job of providing a big-picture view of the culture in the Habsburg domains. They truly saw themselves as a dynasty destined to rule the world, and from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, that no doubt appeared to be true. Even though the Protestant Reformation rocked their domains–and severely curtailed their power–they still managed somehow to be bastions of Catholicism. Likewise, the Habsburg commitment to knowledge and order provided a fertile environment for both art and science to flourish.

Rady also demonstrates the extent to which the Habsburg monarchs also provided a foundation upon which Eastern Europe could base itself. As strange and contradictory and unwieldy as their domains ultimately became–most evident in the clunky appellation “Austro-Hungarian Empire” to define their domains during the 18th and 19th Centuries–it was largely due to their influence that the region remained as fundamentally stable as it did. Ultimately, of course, even such an august dynasty couldn’t withstand the forces of history and the rising tide of German nationalism, and so they became embroiled in Prussia’s ambitions. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that would consume the dynasty and lead to the disintegration of its fortunes.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Habsburgs lost almost all of their political clout. However, as Rady points out, its most prominent member, Otto, actually became a prominent figure in the drive to achieve unity and peace in Europe. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he’d succeeded to the throne.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Rady’s book. He has a keen eye for historical detail, and while at times it’s rather easy to get lost in the bewildering sea of names and dates and places, Rady does usually keep you grounded in the main narrative. It’s clear that he admires the Habsburgs as an ambitious but deeply flawed dynasty that often became victims of their own success. For those who want to get a richer and deeper understanding of a European dynasty so famous that they’ve become almost mythological, Rady’s book is highly recommended.

TV Review: “The Witcher” (Season 1)

Darcy and Winters

Being the contrarian I am, I actually put off watching The Witcher longer than I normally would. Though I am, of course, a huge fan of fantasy series and was in need of something to fill the gap left by the conclusion of Game of Thrones (which was a huge disappointment) and the season finale of His Dark Materials, for some reason I just found all the hype around The Witcher off-putting. Eventually, however, I gave in to the pressure and watched it.

I have to say, I’m not disappointed. In fact, I found myself more drawn into the show than I thought I would be, which was a pleasant surprise. The action is propulsive, the characters are strangely likable (for the most part), and there are glimpses of a vibrant world with cultures and conflicts that are as compelling and bloody as anything in Game of Thrones. Somehow, The…

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Book Review: “Star Wars: Phasma” (Delilah S. Dawson)

Darcy and Winters

In my opinion, one of the best things about the sequel Star Wars trilogy was the enigmatic villain known as Captain Phasma. Unlike all of the other villains of the story, we never really learn much about her and, unfortunately, she met a rather premature death in The Last Jedi. For those who were frustrated by the rather cursory way in which she was dispensed with, Delilah S. Dawson’s book, focused on her early life and related through those who knew her, is something of a corrective.

The novel is related primarily through three different characters. One is Vi, a woman who works for the Resistance (but is not part of it); Cardinal, the First Order captain who captures her and forces her to tell him what she knows about Phasma; and Siv, a young woman who was part of Phasma’s clan on the dying planet of Parnassos. Through these…

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Book Review: “Star Wars: Lords of the Sith (by Paul S. Kemp)

Darcy and Winters

Let me state that outset that I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. Like many other reviewers, I feel that the title is incredibly deceptive, since it suggests that the book is going to primarily focus on the relationship between Darth Vader and Palpatine. While that is indeed a very prominent storyline, it’s only one of many, and it can sometimes be a bit bewildering trying to keep track of everything that’s happening (to say nothing of becoming actually involved with some of these characters).

The novel takes place some time before the events of A New Hope. Vader and Palpatine find themselves ensnared in the Ryloth resistance movement led by the Twi’lek Cham Syndulla. In the process, they find themselves stranded on the planet Ryloth and have to contend both the native wildlife and with the efforts of the Twi’leks, as well as a renegade Imperial, and…

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Reading History: “The Scourge of Henry VIII: The Life of Marie de Guise” (by Melanie Clegg)

Marie de Guise is one of those Renaissance women who’s suffered something of an image problem. Since she doesn’t shine as brightly as her contemporaries or her descendants–Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici and, of course, Marie’s infamous daughter Mary, Queen of Scots–she tends to be glossed over by most histories of the period. Since she reigned as Queen of Scotland for such a short time as the consort of the ill-fated James V and was, for most of the rest of her life a regent rather than a regnant, it’s perhaps understandable.

However, as Melanie Clegg argues, this is a grievous injustice, and Marie deserves a great deal of respect for her ability to navigate not only the cutting world of French politics, but also those of the Scots. Born into a family that gradually rose in power, she ultimately found herself wedded to the mercurial James V of Scotland. Upon his death, she did everything in her power to make sure that the throne was kept secure for her daughter Mary, even though this often put her at odds with the Scottish nobility. In Clegg’s deft hands, we find ourselves swept along with Marie’s later life as she skillfully navigates the unfriendly political world of Scotland.

Unfortunately, as Clegg amply demonstrates, Marie’s life was doomed to be marred by tragedy and disappointment. A great deal of this stemmed from the nature of the Scottish nobility, who were always consumed with their own internecine feuds and attempts to grab power for themselves. However, her life was also marred by personal tragedies, most notably her years-long separation from her daughter. For all of her success in keeping Scotland in line, she ultimately died abandoned by all but, ironically, the very men who were her most steadfast enemies.

Despite the book’s title, Henry VIII actually plays a relatively minor role in the book and in Marie’s life as a whole. However, it is true that England’s rulers, both Henry and his successor Edward (as well as Edward’s guardian and uncle Edward Seymour) were to prove formidable enemies to Scottish independence. Marie actually deserves quite a lot of credit for managing to keep the English at bay as much as she did, though they did of course inflict a great deal of damage on the Borders and, at times, even the capital Edinburgh itself.

Clegg has a keen sense of narrative momentum, and she doesn’t allow her biography to get bogged down in the mundane details in the way of some other historians (I love Alison Weir, but she does have a tendency to get down into the weeds a bit). Clegg shows us the highs and lows of Marie’s political life, giving us a good idea of the type of woman she was and how she managed to succeed in the world of Renaissance politics. She also gives us enough details about the material world to give us a sense of the everyday life of the period.

As informative and readable as this book is, however, it does suffer a number of handicaps. Foremost among these is the lack of a comprehensive biography or any notes. Now, for the lay reader this probably doesn’t really pose much of a problem. I daresay that most people read biographies and popular histories for the information, not for the rigour of the historian. However, for someone who wants to know exactly how Clegg is reaching her conclusions, it can be a little frustrating to not have a paper trail of any kind to follow. I don’t hold Clegg entirely accountable for this, as it seems to me that the editors at Pen & Sword should be a little more diligent in ensuring that they’re providing their readers with accurate material.

All of that being said, Clegg deserves a great deal of credit for bringing Marie out of the shadows into the light of day. She truly was one of the most extraordinary women of the Renaissance and, while not native to Scotland, she clearly cared deeply for her adopted country and did her best to govern it as effectively as possible under incredibly difficult circumstances. I’d definitely recommend this book to others, though with the caution about reliability.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Resistance Reborn” (by Rebecca Roanhorse)

Darcy and Winters

As I’ve said before, I’ve recently become a little bit obsessed with Star Wars. Given that, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I’ve thrown myself into the universe with all of the enthusiasm of a recent convert. To that end, I recently checked out Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, and I’m very glad that I did.

The novel moves us along at a brisk pace, showing us the events that transpired between the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. The Resistance, still reeling from its near-obliteration at the hands of the First Order, struggles to find a place where they can begin to regroup. They eventually end up on Ryloth, and while Leia stays there, she dispatches Poe and a number of others to start drawing far-flung allies to the new Resistance.

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about this new…

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Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (by Jason Fry)

Darcy and Winters

I have to admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, both at the time it came out and subsequently. While I respect some of the risks that the film took, I still feel frustrated by the way that it sidelined Poe in a way that felt untrue to the character, while also asking us to empathize with characters that came out of nowhere. My ambivalence about TLJ, along with my dissatisfaction with the novelization of The Force Awakens, led me to approach this new novel with no small amount of trepidation.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried so much. This novelization makes a number of improvements over the previous volume, and one gets the sense that Jason Fry had a lot more investment in actually translating the film into a book form that stands on its own and isn’t just a mere transcription…

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Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (by Alan Dean Foster)

Darcy and Winters

Having recently watched the final installment of the newly-named “Skywalker Saga,” I’ve become more than a little obsessed with everything connected to Star Wars. I decided that it was time that I dip my toes into the huge pool of books that have emerged

I went into this book with rather high hopes. I’ve always thought that the novelizations of the Star Wars films help to smooth away some of the glaring faults one finds in the film versions. Fantasy giants such as Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvtatore, for example, did a fine job of novelizing the prequel trilogy, and I’m sure that many enjoyed their novels more than the films. Though I quite enjoyed The Force Awakens, I was hoping to gain some new insight into the film, the characters, and the world.

While I enjoyed this novelization, I tend to agree with those critics who see it as…

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Film Review: “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker”

Darcy and Winters

Warning: spoilers for the film follow.

I’m going to offer a somewhat controversial opinion: I actually really, really liked Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I thought that the visuals were spectacular, the performances were compelling, and the philosophical themes thought-provoking and timely.

Now, it has to be said that there were some issues with the film. Obviously, the writing in this installment leaves something to be desired. For example, much as I have yearned for and was excited by Palpatine’s return, it did feel like it came out of nowhere. Part of this no doubt stems from Rian Johnson’s decision to have Snoke thrust out of the frame rather abruptly in The Last Jedi (a decision this film mirrors with its cursory elimination of General Hux, a waste of a perfectly fine villain, IMHO). Casting about for a new big bad, and unwilling to let Kylo occupy…

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